The City of Stone (TSWL Ch.4)

A damp, chilly morning greeted Tomas as he opened his eyes.  Peeking his head out of the tent, he found Kari sitting with her back against a tree, facing the Lake.  Her eyes were closed.  “Sleep well?”  She didn’t open her eyes as she said it.

“You were supposed to wake me up for another watch.  More than one, actually.”  Tomas rubbed his eyes as he left the tent.

Kari shrugged.  “You need your sleep.  How’s the shoulder?”

 “Hurts.  I can move it fine.  You need your sleep too.”

Kari said nothing as she moved to take down the tent.  Automatically, Tomas moved to spread out the remains of the fire Kari had kept burning through the night.

“Kari, you really should have woken me up.”

She just shrugged again.

They finished breaking down their small camp in silence.

When it was done, they shouldered their packs and continued walking south, the Lake on their right.  They were still close enough to the water that Tomas could hear waves lapping against the shore.  The day before, it had been a comforting sound, a small piece of his Home north of the Mountains.  Today, it was an unsettling reminder of the previous night’s terrors.  They walked side by side in silence for a while, each munching on a breakfast of hard sausage.

Once he’d finished his small meal, Tomas found the waves impossible to ignore; the sound of his chewing had been a flimsy barrier against the incessant noise coming from the beach.  Now even it was gone.  “We should make it to Vacen today, right?” 

Kari nodded.

After a moment, Tomas tried again.  “Are we gonna try to find an inn?  Or camp outside the city limits?”

Kari shrugged.

Tomas clenched his teeth.  It wasn’t just the unsettling quiet all around him that was putting him on edge anymore, punctuated as it was by his lingering fears.  Kari had started walking faster.  Trotting to keep up with her, he said a bit too loud, “You’re going to have to talk to me at some point.  So you might as well tell me what’s eating you. We’re in this together, remember?”

“In this together.”  She muttered it more than anything else.

“We are!”

“Right.  We are.”  She stopped walking and whirled around to face him.  “If it weren’t for me last night, you wouldn’t be here today.”  Her voice echoed among the trees around them, the silence still only a breath away.  Waves beat against the Lake shore.  “I’m not looking for thanks, Tomas.  I just…” Her voice broke and she trailed off.

Tomas caught up to her and waited for her to finish.  He knew she had more to say, she was just searching for the words.  He was grateful for the break in walking and took the moment to catch his breath.

Kari set her jaw and looked past Tomas, out over the Lake.  “It’s just…when I’m asleep, who’s gonna protect me?”  At this, she met Tomas’ gaze.  [After the fact, Tomas often wrote about how vulnerable Kari truly was in this moment.  She hadn’t meant it to hurt him, though he couldn’t see that at the time.] 

The fear in her eyes was lost on Tomas, though, and he stormed off down the path, in the direction of Vacen.  “Let’s just go.  Won’t be any monsters in Vacen, will there?”

Kari stood very still for a moment as he pulled away, then wordlessly fell into step behind him, the path still wide enough for two.

They walked in silence for a while, each alone with their fears.  Tomas found it preferable to fighting with his companion, [understandably, if you ask me.]  They had enough bread and cheese for a final meal before they entered the city, and when they came to an old, seemingly unused watchtower on the Lake, they sat at its base and had their lunch.

After a few silent bites, Kari spoke.  “Hey, I’m sorry.  That wasn’t called for.”

Tomas didn’t reply right away. But after a deep breath, “No, it kind of was. You’re right, if that thing had come back while you were asleep, there would’ve been nothing I could do. After all, you’re downright impossible to wake sometimes.”

This made Kari laugh, and when she did, something that had been knotted up inside Tomas came loose.  He laughed with her and relaxed a bit against the smooth, cool stone tower.

“I’ve decided something, though.”  Tomas had finished eating and was in the process of repacking the remnants of his lunch.

“What’s that?”

“We’re not leaving Vacen until I have some way to protect you.  It’s impractical otherwise.  And we’ve seen that there are things out here that are no joke.”

“Good thought.  I just hope we can get some answers.”

“Well, then I’m not leaving Vacen until I have at least a lead.”

“Wasn’t that always the plan?”  Kari’s lingering smile turned almost impish.

“Oh, you know what I mean.”  Tomas couldn’t help but laugh again.

Together, they stood up and shouldered their packs, feeling ready to face Vacen together.

“They couldn’t possibly have been ready, though.  Has anyone here seen the City of Stone?  I know many of us have, so I’ll say it like this: could you imagine seeing that town—just those walls even—having lived here for your whole life prior?  There was nothing that could have prepared them for the spectacle that awaited them.”

I smile as I hear murmurs of assent pop up here and there.

“The rest of you need not worry, though, for Tomas,” here I pat the journal resting open in my lap, “he was awestruck.  I wouldn’t leave anyone behind in this story, so long as they’re listening carefully. 

“So,” I search the faces of the crowd for a moment before whirling around to stare down one of the children sitting at my feet.  “Are you listening carefully?”

The child’s eyes grow wide with surprise; she shrinks away from me just noticeably.  After a moment of fright, she nods somberly.

I smile grandly at her and say, “Well, then.  I suppose it’s time to move on.”

From the watchtower, it was a short walk along the beach to the big stone wall surrounding the city.  Curiously, rather than ending at the lakeshore, it plunged beneath the waves, [much like the peaks of the Northern Range do.]  Walking along the wall with the Lake behind them, it wasn’t long before they came to a gate, nothing more than a pair of open wooden doors set into the smooth bluestone. 

“No, way,” breathed Kari as they stepped through the doors onto a settstone street, the uniform blocks in the ground the same colors as the seamless outer wall.  Looking all around, they saw that it wasn’t just the street that shared the color.  Buildings twice, three times as tall as any [of those you see around you] surrounded them, flowing into one another, all interlocking and made from the same sandy bluestone.  Looking ahead, the street felt more like a corridor, sparkling in the midday sun.  Streets and alleys shot off in either direction, some at weird angles, but Kari and Tomas kept to the relatively wide street they were on, hoping to find some hint as to where they should go.

“Where do you think they get the stone?  There’s no mountains closer than ours, and they are not this color.”  Tomas was transfixed by the sun on the stone and the way his voice seemed to bounce effortlessly back out from empty alleys and resonate in every nook and cranny he could find.

Kari shrugged.  “Maybe we should find a shop or somewhere to ask about a place to stay.”

“Good plan.  This seems like too much ground to try to cover without knowing the city at all.  See anywhere that looks good?”

Kari shrugged again and pointed to a wooden sign bearing a curious geometric design hanging above an otherwise inconspicuous door.

Tomas shrugged too.  “Works for me.”

They went through the door, a small bell on its inside announcing their arrival.  Lining the walls were thick rolls of fabric, brightly colored and each with an apparently unique design, though Tomas could only see a small fragment of each, tightly wound as they were.  A small old man stood off in one corner, measuring an unrolled bolt of the thick cloth.  Tomas could see that this one was red and black, with a great many angles criss-crossing its surface.

“Can I help you?”  The man looked quizzically at the pair.  Tomas realized they were both still wearing their packs and were certainly dirty and grizzled from the road.

He laughed out loud; Kari looked at him, slightly horrified before bursting out laughing herself.  “I’m sorry we’re such a mess, sir,” he said.  “We’ve just gotten into town from Brin.”

His furrowed brows gave way to a friendly grin, which seemed to squeeze his eyes shut.  “Well, that explains that.  Came the short way, eh?”  He chuckled to himself.  “What need have you for a tapestry, then?”  He set down his measuring line and moved toward them, wiping his clean hands on his vest.

“A tapestry, sir?”

He gestured vaguely around himself.  “It’s what I sell here.”

“Oh, of course.  No, we were hoping for directions.”

“You came from that gate?”  He jerked his thumb in the direction from which they’d come.

They nodded.

He jerked his opposite thumb in the opposite direction.  “Three blocks that way.  Same side of the street.  Tables out front.”

Tomas thanked him but didn’t make to leave.  Instead, he looked up at him apologetically.  “Um, blocks, sir?”

The old man sighed and pointed to his left again.  “Two streets cross there, yeah?  Well, there’s another one right over there.”  He gestured to his right.  “The distance between them is one block.  Got it?”  They nodded again and began to leave.  They stopped when he sighed and said, “And if you get lost, you come back here.  I can’t have lost children on my conscious.” 

With that, he turned and went back to the rug he’d been measuring, muttering to himself about Northerners.

“Thank you…”  Tomas said sheepishly as they went back outside; the bell jingled as they went through the door. 

Kari sighed heavily.

“Hey, that could have been a lot worse.”  Tomas raised his hands, palms out, as he presented his defense.  “He turned out really nice.”

Kari’s eyebrows went up as a smile crept onto her face.  “I guess he did, but ‘children’?  Come on.”  She shook her head.  “Let’s try not to exasperate the innkeeper, okay?”

Tomas’ relief was evident in his laughter.  “Fair enough.  Let’s get going.”

Three blocks turned out to be much shorter than either thought.  There were tables out front, just as the shopkeeper had said.  Feeling the first leg of their trip behind them, they hurried inside, eager to drop their packs and sit for a while.

It was dark inside the tavern, and in the moments before their eyes adjusted, Kari managed to collide with and knock over a chair.

As the clatter of wood chair bouncing on wood floor subsided, the pair heard laughter coming from behind the bar.  “You’re lucky I’m the only one around,” a smiling voice said through the gloom.

“We’re very sorry,” Tomas said quickly.  “We—”

“It’s nothin’ to worry about.  My lighting in here can make sunny days rough.  My lunch commotion just wrapped up, else that chair wouldn’t’ve been there in the first place.”  Drying her hands on a towel, the bartender went over to where Kari had already set the chair upright and slid it back behind a nearby table.  “What can I do for a couple seasoned travelers like yourselves?”

“Well, we’d love a room and a steady place for meals.  But we’re not all that experienced, ma’am.  We’ve only spent a couple nights on the road our whole lives.”

“Now who said anythin’ ‘bout experience?”  She laughed again, loudly and suddenly.  “Showers’ll take care of that seasoning, and at no extra charge to you.  You do have coin, yeah?”

Tomas smiled.  “Some.  And we’ve a strong back and a clever pair of hands between us, if there’s chores to be done.” 

“I’m sure I’ll find some use for you.  I’ll show you to your rooms, then?”  She moved toward the stairs at the end of the bar.

Following her, Tomas said, “We only need the one, though two beds would be nice.  We can’t afford much else, and we do need to eat.” 

At the top of the staircase a door was propped open, and beyond that a hall that ran to the far end of the building, doors lining either side.

“One room, two beds.  No problem.  You don’t need to worry about meals while you’re under my roof, though.  ‘Specially if you’re pickin’ up chores.”  She beamed at them as she held open the second door on the right.  Inside was a cozy room with two beds.  Nothing fancy or unnecessary, just a lamp on the table between the beds and a window overlooking the street they’d entered the building from.

“It’s perfect.  Thank you,” said Tomas, dropping his pack on the far bed, closer to the window. 

Kari did the same on the nearer bed, nodding her thanks at the wiry innkeeper as Tomas sat down on his mattress.

“You’ll know mealtimes by the ruckus downstairs.  You need anything else, ask anyone behind the bar or in the kitchen.”  She disappeared, but quickly returned, saying, “Oh, and my name’s Jolene.”

“Thank you, Jolene.  We’ll be down later to talk about those chores.”  They were the first words Kari had said since colliding with the chair.

Jolene seemed to recognize the practiced efficiency with which Kari spoke, and accepted her thanks with a nod before disappearing down the hall.

Kari sat on her bed with a heavy sigh.  Into the silence, she said, “What now?”

Unexpectedly, only sounds from the street below answered her.

She turned, finding Tomas asleep in his road clothes, practically on top of his pack, arms around it, and boots still on his feet.

“Good idea,” she said to him, smiling to herself and moving her own pack to the floor.

Next Chapter →

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